Debating Liberal Internationalism

May 15, 2008 • Commentary
This article appeared in the The American Prospect (Online) on May 15, 2008.

Matt Yglesias and I agree that American foreign policy since 9–11 has been a disaster. Along David Frum and David Rieff, I have perhaps the least basis in this discussion to advise liberals about what political tactics they should use to deal with national‐​security questions, so I don’t want to focus on that topic.

Rather, I wonder how large a factor this struggle of ideas really is in the making of U.S. foreign policy compared to the influence of the processes and institutions through which U.S. foreign policy is made. (When libertarians talk about these kinds of factors, we refer to the theoretical lens as “public choice,” not Marxism, so please no one get me in trouble and refer to it as the latter.)

It is fashionable and self‐​serving for us policy wonks to convince ourselves that “ideas matter” — it is on this conception that we raise funds for our work, and it is the animating force that gets us out of bed each morning. But the foreign‐​policy debate over the past five years has made it clearer and clearer that ideas are necessary but not sufficient to determine what actually comes out of the foreign‐​policy‐​making process.

As my colleague Benjamin Friedman recently observed (PDF):

In current national security politics, there is debate, but all the interests are on one side. Both parties see political reward in preaching danger. The massive U.S. national security establishment relies on a sense of threat to stay in business. On the other side, as former defense secretary Les Aspin once wrote, there is no other side. No one alarms us about alarmism. Hitler and Stalin destroyed America’s isolationist tradition. Everyone likes lower taxes, but not enough to organize interest groups against defense spending. A scattering of libertarians and anti‐​war liberals confronts a bipartisan juggernaut. The information about national security threats comes to Americans principally from people driven by organizational or electoral incentives toward threat inflation.

This confluence of material interests — ranging from aerospace and defense contractors and other members of the military‐​industrial complex to well‐​funded lobbyists for foreign governments — is buttressed further by a media elite that appears entirely at peace with the disaster that neoconservative policy‐​making has wrought on the country. Instead of hiring someone who has demonstrated wisdom about foreign policy — someone who threw the penalty flag on the Iraq War before it started, say — The New York Times gives William Kristol a regular column on its op‐​ed page (alongside his ideological twin David Brooks) because Kristol is believed to be in possession of the all‐​important “influence.”

None of the people who urged us to start the war (except, perhaps, the president himself) have failed to be insulated from the disaster that their policies have wrought. From Michael O’Hanlon’s omnipresence on the leading op‐​ed pages to Paul Wolfowitz’s appointment to Robert S. McNamara’s old post as head of the World Bank, the architects of our Iraq policy have emerged from the wreckage that their plans produced with their reputations remarkably intact. The much‐​vaunted “marketplace of ideas” seems to be suffering from market failure.

In addition to the range of special interests and the insular and narcissistic media elite, the war party is supported by the largesse of a number of billionaires who seem to have been convinced — after having been informed that the choice before them is between victory and holocaust — that they personally are under existential threat every day. This is a strong motivation indeed. On the other side, it is true, George Soros has done heroic work in attempting to beat back the ideologues who brought the country to war in Iraq, but he cannot win alone against the legions arrayed on the other side.

At the level of the ideological infantry, neoconservatism is a career, as Scott McConnell has observed and Randy Scheunemann has proved. Noninterventionism, or realism, or even liberal internationalism of the variety Matt is selling, is not.

Accordingly, at this point I am less concerned about the battle of ideas than I am about the battle of interests. The facts have a way of making inroads, ultimately, in the battle of ideas. But to consolidate the gains our side has won in the ideological struggle against those who got us into Iraq, there will need to be a much more substantial array of interests aligned to populate Aspin’s currently nonexistent “other side.” Otherwise, we will clap each other on the back and congratulate ourselves for our strategic and moral rectitude as the country is led further and further toward the inevitable denouement of empire.

About the Author